Everything I Ever Wanted: Brian Lewallen

By+Kathe Brunton

Former Notre Dame Football Player Recalls His Love for the University and the Game

On a quiet Friday evening, the night before a home football game, the spacious Notre Dame locker room stands as silent witness to 12 decades of one of the most revered and, sometimes, feared teams in college sports.

It is near reverential, this hallowed place of time and tradition. Carpet the blue of the ocean sweeps the expanse of the room. A cream-colored, intertwined “ND” logo graces the center of the floor. A row of gleaming, golden-hued, wooden lockers circles the perimeter. High atop each open locker is a set of shoulder pads. Iconic gold helmets sit a shelf below. The pride of each player, the blue and gold uniform, hangs above black cleats set at the base. The space is pristine, and one is compelled to whisper, if talk at all.

Brian Lewallen stands at the edge of the oval space, arms crossed, and recalls his own times in this room as a walk-on for Ara Parseghian in the late ‘60s.

“When I was here, we had crummy metal lockers and a concrete floor. It was cold!” he said, laughing.

The memories flood back for this South Bend born-and-raised, Riley-High-grad, former #10 Fighting Irish. For example, there’s the day Lewallen tried out for a walk-on spot on the team.

“I came on campus and it seemed like there were 250 guys,” he recalled. “I thought there must be some kind of event going on. But all these guys had showed up to try out! We started out scrimmaging against the freshmen scholarship players, followed by the number one varsity team in the nation. I got hit so hard on one play my shoes came off, my helmet came off, and I fumbled the ball.”

Brian remembers about 35 guys quitting after that first scrimmage. “I guess they couldn’t take it,” he said, smiling. But he could. And he did. He returned for each day of the tryouts. Over the next week, while waiting to hear if he made the team, Lewallen visited the grotto on campus every night and invoked a higher power to help make his dream come true.

“When I was in the sixth grade, I remember watching a Notre Dame game. They were losing and I told my mom, ‘I think I can help them!’ I dreamed this all my life.”

After becoming one of only 40 to make the cut, Lewallen played running back for the freshmen team’s two games in 1966. Weighing in at a slight 155 pounds, he was encouraged to improve his build after a defensive coach saw him and said, “What the hell is this? Are we doing intramural play now?” He chuckles at the memory.

In his sophomore year, Brian gained 30 pounds and earned a place on the prep team. One of his proudest moments came during a scrimmage with the various varsity teams. The ball was on the 10-yard line, and each team tried and tried to get it past the “preppers.” But no go. The prep team held the more experienced players at bay, down after down. “That was a moment of pride,” he said. “Notre Dame had the leading offense in the nation, but we held them back. It was a living testament to the guys who were preppers.”

Along with the cold, concrete, metal-rimmed locker room, there wasn’t any pampering for football players of that era. “We practiced in the rain, snow, sleet. Ara really honed our skills. I remember having to roll up the tarp that was loaded with snow in order to practice. The players today don’t do that. Our practices were a lot rougher.”

Still, Brian was impressed with the actual field. “It was plush, compared to what I was used to. I grew up playing in the streets of South Bend on concrete and gravel,” he said.

Lewallen’s Notre Dame dream culminated when he was named to a safety position on the varsity team in his junior and senior years.

His crowning moment, he recalled, occurred in the first game of his senior year against Northwestern on Sept. 20, 1969. “It was the fourth quarter, we were barely leading 14-10, and I had fumbled but recovered my very first punt return. Back in the huddle, the guys wondered if I could even catch the ball. I told them, ‘Just block. I’ll do what I have to do.’” And he did. Brian scored on a 44-yard punt return, helping the Irish to post another win.

“After the game,” Brian said, “I remember being mobbed by the fans. In that moment, that was everything I ever wanted to do.”

The years haven’t dimmed Lewallen’s respect for the college and his coach.

“When we played USC, they characteristically had much more talent,” he said. “Man-for-man, they were a better team. But they didn’t have a coach like Ara. They didn’t have the same great camaraderie we had.”

Unfortunately, the dream came to an abrupt end in the sixth game of Lewallen’s senior year. It was Oct. 25, 1969, and the Irish were playing at Tulane in Louisiana.

“The grass was like hard clay compared to the Notre Dame field,” Brian said. “I remember planting my foot during a punt return and hearing a loud pop. One of the Tulane players several yards away told me he heard the sound. I blew my knee out, the tendons, the ligaments, everything.”

He shakes his head. “I had the number one defense blocking for me. I was one of the fastest on the team. I could have broken punt return records that year.” On a lighter note, Brian laughs when he shares that the team doctor still shows the clip of his injury each year.

Today, Lewallen has parlayed his Notre Dame marketing degree into several successful businesses. Following graduation in 1970, he moved to Southern California, where he spent 30 years in the fitness industry. As co-owner of Muscle Dynamics Corp., he helped develop more than 150 pieces of professional and home-strength training equipment. Currently, as owner of the Fall Prevention Institute, he is launching a program that will help senior citizens avoid falls, which account for a significant portion of healthcare dollars. Medicare approved, the custom orthotics he is marketing help reduce falls by 30 to 60 percent.

But wherever his ventures take him, Brian will carry with him those glorious memories of his playing days, knowing he was part of something special.

“It was really gratifying to play for Notre Dame. You become the embodiment of that spirit,” he said. “You feel an obligation to your parents, your supporters and the university. In my estimation, this is the best place to play. You shed your blood on that field.”


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